*Create a Sense of Purpose for Youth

By Wendy Lynch, MSW, Courier & Press, August 1, 2017 –

After a busy day helping kids as a school social worker, I often come home from work feeling the need to decompress.  Many days I find myself trying to process the daily struggles of my students.

My husband and I regularly discuss what it means to help a child in need.  How can I serve all the kids I meet with effectively?

There are many directions this conversation can go, but one concept we often discuss is the necessity for  youth  to feel a part of something — a need for connection, a sense of belonging  or perhaps best said, a sense of purpose.

Research shows that teens and young adults that seek purpose have higher levels of life satisfaction and happiness.  While recognizing these needs is important, the more challenging component is to how best connect  youth  to this sense of purpose.

When I recently listened to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg give an eloquent commencement speech to Harvard University graduates, I was impassioned by his message of “purpose,” because it was so reflective of many of my interactions with the kids I serve through  Youth  First.  Mr. Zuckerberg’s thesis was that “finding your purpose isn’t enough; the challenge is to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.”  (You can find Zuckerberg’s speech on You Tube.)

 With this in mind, I often find my conversations with distressed  youth  gravitating toward  the things in life they care about — people, ideas, and dreams — and how I can best point them toward  these  connections.  So how might one do this?  Zuckerberg offers three concepts that can help you lead your child towards a sense of connection, belonging and purpose:

  1. Encourage participation in something bigger than yourself.  Examples include community service, sports, drama, music  or clubs.
  2. Try to create the feeling or environment where the child is needed.
  3. Help facilitate an environment, attitudes  and goals where there is always something better ahead to work towards.

In my experience, I believe it is productive to help your child see a bright future and focus on what is to come rather than what is in the past.  According to William Damon, author of “The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life,” benefits can include living longer and healthier; valuing humility, gratitude and integrity; being more academically engaged; being more pro-socially oriented and engaged; being interested in how their actions affect others  and more.

The teen years are a time to explore one’s inner and outer world and seek new experiences.  Hopefully, these experiences will also create time for self-reflection so that teens can discover what gives their life purpose and meaning – what makes them feel alive.  Parents can set an example for their teen by modeling a sense of purpose in their own lives.

Guide your teen toward finding their purpose in life.  Help them break down their purpose into achievable goals and take action to support them until they’ve achieved their goals.  Pride in what they accomplish and service to others can build a capacity for a greater purpose that endures into their life well beyond the teen years.